K by Me

Kitchen K combines an ambitious menu with a stunning space -- and pulls it all off beautifully

What made me start to fall in love with Kitchen Kwas not the look of it (though, housed in the high-ceilinged, ground-floor space of the newly opened Merchandise Mart apartments, it looks terrific) or the taste of it (which is plenty good) but the sound of it. A restaurant that plays the Smiths' "The Boy with the Thorn in His Side," Badly Drawn Boy's "Something to Talk About" and "Wig in a Box" from the Hedwig and the Angry Inch soundtrack makes me a little giddy -- the way I'd feel if a first date had one of those songs already cued up in his car stereo after picking me up, making me think from the get-go that there just might be something between us.

We have a lot in common, Kitchen K and I. We both decorate with paper lanterns, we both entertain using handsome, minimalist white china and hefty silverware, we both keep a shelf of well-worn cookbooks close to the stove, we (the cooks and I, anyway) don do-rags when working, and we both proudly serve our guests sloppy joes. We also both enjoy getting just a little kooky when we kitchen-improv -- how else to account for the sweet potato fries served with banana-guava ketchup? -- but at the same time, we stick to our beloved staple ingredients. For Kitchen K the motifs lie in things like portobello mushrooms, shrimp, chicken, chilies and goat cheese. Perhaps the most apt compliment I can pay this restaurant is that when something on the menu makes you think, "That sounds great," it almost always is.

Despite no formal culinary training, Kitchen K chef Joe Papendick knows what he's doing. A New York City transplant who came here about ten years ago for cheaper art space, Papendick washed dishes just for the paycheck but wound up quickly ascending the restaurant ranks anyway when he became friends with Kitchen K partner Pablo Weiss. Weiss is the man behind the erstwhile '90s downtown triumvirate of Hot Locust, the Side Door and Pablo's -- a casual-fare eatery, a club and a bar, respectively. (Pablo's changed hands and is now the Rocket Bar.)

Letter-perfect: At Kitchen K, restaurateur Pablo Weiss pairs a grand menu with an even grander space
Jennifer Silverberg
Letter-perfect: At Kitchen K, restaurateur Pablo Weiss pairs a grand menu with an even grander space

Location Info

Map

Kitchen K

1000 Washington Ave.
St Louis, MO 63101-1263

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: St. Louis - Downtown

Rocket Bar

2001 Locust St.
St Louis, MO 63103-1613

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: St. Louis - South Grand

Details

Sweet potato fries $5.75
Eggplant and goat cheese melt $7.95
Coriander-encrusted mahi mahi $18.95
Blueberry crumb $4.50

314-241-9900. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri., noon-11 p.m. Sat., 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Sun.

1000 Washington Avenue

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Papendick's approach to food centers on "that sounds great" thinking. "When I create a dish, I always make an effort to choose the words right," he says. "The way I look at it, your tongue is involved in two things: saying the words that describe the food and then tasting the food described. I trust that if people enjoy mouthing the words, if they like the way it sounds, it'll probably taste good. Then I just have to go play around and figure out how to make it."

With most chefs, the specials are where new dishes audition. Such is the case with Papendick -- except his lists of "everyday" and "today" items are equally long and audacious. Many of his selections were resurrected from his Hot Locust days, and a majority of those dishes started off as Hot Locust tryouts. The aforementioned sweet potato fries are oversized (bigger than a Sharpie) and just a bit underdone, such that you get a proper French fry encasement wrapped around a soft spud center that maintains the sweet potato's integrity. The accompanying banana-guava ketchup, sweet and tart, can't help but crowd-please. Another memorable appetizer, tandoori blackened shrimp, is richly combined with grilled pineapple and a cucumber mint sauce, while a lip-smacking grilled portobello mushroom is baked with artichoke hearts and the cheese-of-the-moment, Asiago.

Because Kitchen K's menu is so large and tempting and its soups and salads are listed separately from finger-food appetizers, it's hard to resist ordering three courses. Unfortunately the salads are merely so-so (the Thai salad's uninspired pile of gray soba noodles is one of the menu's few notable disappointments). Soups and stews, however, incorporate rustic textures and robust flavors. Chicken gumbo, beef and beet soup, and chili made with either red or white beans will all prove essential to diners as winter looms.

Kitchen K boasts so many main dishes -- an average of 25 between the everyday and today menus, counting both informal such as burgers and burritos as well as entrée plates -- that it would take a year get to know them in any depth. That said, the coriander-encrusted mahi mahi, which flourishes in a coconut curry sauce and comes with a trio of mussels to boot, is a must. So are pan-seared scallops, plump and perfectly set in a broth made with yellow tomatoes and fennel. For lunch in particular, you can't go wrong with the eggplant and goat cheese melt, structured on a thick wedge of "black" (read: pumpernickel-like) bread; or the baked vegetable tart, akin to a thin gourmet pizza, with roasted red peppers, spinach and goat cheese delicately balanced on an airy pastry crust. Alas, I was underwhelmed by the "real" sloppy joe, which is actually a tasty but not at all complex heap of braised brisket sandwiched in a plain-tasting roll.

Desserts come courtesy of Sugaree Baking in Dogtown, a storefront establishment best known for its wedding cakes. Lots of cheesecake varieties are offered, but the more soaring choices are the flourless chocolate ecstasy cake (so dense it's easily mistaken for a block of fudge), a layered chocolate raspberry cake accented with tea-party pink cream filling and a blueberry crumb that, thanks to its decadently gooey pecan topping, passes dreamily for pecan pie.

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